Notre Dame on fire ...
In March, I went on a three-hour ride-along with a U.S. Border Patrol agent around the San Diego–Tijuana border.
That was my first and only ride-along with a border agent, and I was thrilled when the media relations team at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) granted my request for a ride. After doing a background check on me, they connected me with Fabian Carbajal, a public affairs officer with the Border Patrol at the San Diego sector. That’s protocol: As a journalist, I can’t just walk up to a border agent and interview him. If I did, the agent would refer me to media relations, or perhaps talk off the record. My biggest concern going into the border tour was that I’d mostly be getting official statements from agent Carbajal.
Carbajal and I met in the early morning at a Starbucks near the border. His truck tires were coated with dried mud, his windows dusty and stained with squashed bugs—signs of a well-traveled vehicle. I hopped into the passenger seat, and Carbajal took me up and down muddy hills overlooking the little towns of Tijuana.
Carbajal was an affable and open guy, and he had only just been rotated to public affairs several months before I met him. As we rumbled and bumped over unpaved terrain, Carbajal told how he had served in the Marine Corps for several years and completed two tours in Iraq, where he saw so many of his friends die that he decided he needed to get out of that field. But law enforcement was all he knew, and a former Marine like him wouldn’t adjust well to a pencil-pushing job, so he applied to other law enforcement agencies. Border Patrol was the first to respond to him, and he’s been a border agent for 13 years now.
What Border Patrol does is pretty straightforward: It apprehends individuals who cross the border between ports of entry, holds them for a short while, and then turns them over to the next appropriate agency, whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). To many Border Patrol agents, their job purpose is to serve and protect their countrymen: They are the watchmen at the front lines, guarding citizens from drug traffickers, terrorists, smugglers, and possibly dangerous illegal border crossers.
Unsurprisingly, Border Patrol attracts many individuals like Carbajal. In its job application site, the agency promises future agents a job that will “fill your need for excitement and adventure.” It’s a job that appeals to people who chase adrenaline and desire to serve their country. Most Border Patrol agents signed up knowing their job would be tough and dangerous. Many spend hours traversing the remote outdoors, braving suffocating desert summer heat and mountain winter cold. At times they keep watch for long hours, chasing illegal crossers or hiking around brush, looking for fresh tracks.
With all that’s happening at the border, we now frequently hear about the Border Patrol in the news, often for unflattering reasons. In one year, I’ve read reports on the high rates of misconduct and disciplinary infractions within CBP and Border Patrol, on agents separating migrant families at the border, on children dying in CBP custody, and on sexist and derogatory remarks that agents and former agents made in a secret Facebook group. For the most part, whether deserved or undeserved, CBP and Border Patrol bear the brunt of media scrutiny and criticism.
“This is the most media attention we’ve ever received,” Carbajal told me—and the criticism has also grown among his family and friends, some of whom call him names such as “family separator.” He now dreads telling people what he does for a living. The hostile remarks sting him, because that’s not how he sees his role as a border agent.
When I asked about the morale of Border Patrol agents, Carbajal paused. “It’s kind of low,” he told me quietly. “They don’t feel like they’re being supported. At the end of the day, our job is to stop people from crossing illegally, but people are calling us racist. They don’t understand I’m just trying to do my job.”
Recently, I asked that same question to another Border Patrol agent in Arizona. He let out a dry laugh: “Of course morale is down. It’s because of public perception. People are protesting, calling you Nazi, things like that.” Morale has never been the highest among CBP or Border Patrol compared with other law enforcement agencies, but it dipped significantly after 2014, when thousands of unaccompanied children began crossing the border, the agent said: “You’re angry at their parents. You’re angry at the administration. You’re angry that this issue is not really being resolved.”
The agent, who spoke under condition of anonymity because he didn’t have approval to speak to media, said he’s going to take a retirement deal as soon as he can. He said many other agents he knows plan to do the same. This is worrying, because Border Patrol already has a significant recruitment and retention problem. Meanwhile, the border issue is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Migrants are suffering, but Border Patrol agents are also suffering from a poor public image they say they don’t deserve.
This is why I’m pursuing a feature story focusing on Border Patrol. I’m looking to interview CBP and Border Patrol agents working at the southern border who can show me what their job looks like day to day, what their challenges and frustrations are, what they see that the public might not. I’d like to talk to someone who’s not in media relations, and who’s preferably a professing Christian. If that’s you, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.